Tanzania: on the impact of Arabic on Swahili

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri May 1 16:41:55 UTC 2009

Abdulaziz Y. Lodhi, the distinguished professor at Uppsala University,
Sweden, wrote an interesting article in HABARI (Journal of the
Sweden-Tanzania Society. Issue No 1, 2009) on the impact of Arabic on
the Swahili language. His main argument: ‘Arabic in East Africa has
minimal formal and academic recognition in spite of its historical
predominance on the East African littoral and the rim of the Indian
Ocean in general.’ Lodhi begins with a brief historical background on
the status of Arabic, Swahili and English in Zanzibar and Tanganyika
during the colonial era.

Extract: ‘…In 1890 when the Sultanate of Zanzibar became a British
protectorate, Arabic had been the sole language of administration
commerce, diplomacy, education, and liturgy in Muslim East Africa.
Swahili gradually replaced Arabic in many fields during the 30 years
of German occupation of Tanganyika, but after the First World War and
the British takeover of Tanganyika, English was formally encouraged
and spread there at the expense of both Arabic and Swahili.’

The article then briefly discusses the historical context of Arabic as
a medium of instruction in Zanzibar where its use fluctuated according
to colonial and post-colonial government policies, and then noted that
Arabic, the spiritual language of the Muslims, which ‘is also the
“Latin” of Swahili … is included in neither the programs of the
Institute of Kiswahili Research (IKR), nor the Department of Kiswahili
and African Languages at the University of Dar es Salaam. Only an
extramural course is occasionally offered at the Institute of Adult
Education in Dar es Salaam, but at the university, no graduate course
in Arabic is offered. This is despite the fact that approximately 42
percent of Swahili vocabulary is of Arabic origin.
Towards the end of the article Lodhi restates his argument by saying:
‘there is an abundance of Arabic grammatical or structural loans in
Swahili, which the other languages of East Africa borrow freely from
Swahili…Arabic continues to make important contributions to the
development of the modern Swahili lexicon, and indirectly the lexicon
of other East African languages…However, it is English which is the
largest language contributor to East Africa today, but its
contribution is limited to nominals belonging primarily to the fields
of modern technology and science.’


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